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PST’s 2018 World Cup draw roundtable

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With the draw for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup taking place in Moscow on Friday, there’s plenty of excitement building.

[ STREAM: Draw live, 10 a.m. ET ]

Below our panel of writers discuss the key topics heading into the draw including the lack of the U.S. men’s national team, “Group of Death” scenarios and the dark horses.

[ MORE: Pots for 2018 World Cup draw ]

Here we go.

Here it is, World Cup fever has begun. As journalists who watch the U.S. team closely, has it sunk in yet that the USMNT won’t be at the World Cup for the first time since 1986? What feelings did you have this time four years ago before Brazil 2014?

Joe Prince-Wright: It hasn’t really sunk in yet, to be honest. Tomorrow will be one of the key moments when we sit there and realize ‘damn, the USMNT won’t be at the World Cup.’ It will be a major part of the acceptance stage of this U.S. debacle. Four years ago I was full of excitement to see who the U.S. would get and trying to work out their multiple “Group of Death” scenarios. Now, there’s still plenty of excitement about all of the big players and teams and who they will face, but still a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right. I’m more intrigued to see what watching a World Cup in the USA, without the U.S. participating, will be like this summer.

Nick Mendola: It has sunk in, mostly, but that doesn’t change the anger and distrust toward the team and federation. There are just so many reminders, not the least of which was seeing the U.S. B-Team stick with Portugal’s B-Team in last month’s friendly. Yeah, it’s an odd metric of sorts, but the USMNT finished one point from the World Cup and lost to Trinidad’s B-Team with Geoff Cameron on the bench and both Fabian Johnson and Weston McKennie at home on the couch. Any chance to feel even a tiny bit better about the team was bungled by post-elimination hierarchy press conferences and then Bruce Arena’s decision to go on TV during the Portugal game. Wow. There’s still a lot of anger there. Does that mean it hasn’t sunk in?

Kyle Bonn: The World Cup is the World Cup, and the excitement will always be there, but I can’t lie, it’s slightly mitigated this time around with the US out of the field. There’s always a passion to watch your country play and without that something definitely seems to be missing in the buildup.

Dan Karell: Ugh. Another gut-punch. It’s going to be sad not seeing the words “United States” on a little piece of paper picked out of a pot (Pot 3, probably?) on Friday. Around this time four years ago, I was definitely just looking at all the probabilities and I think like most people, hoping to avoid a group of death. The U.S. showed though that it didn’t matter, and finished ahead of Portugal and Ghana instead of last place where many predicted.

Matt Reed: The more I’ve thought about everything, the more clearly it has begun that there are glaring issues within the U.S. Soccer community that need addressing. Yes, it was and still is a shock that the USMNT did not qualify for Russia, but at the same time, the team’s shortcomings open the door for changes to occur over the next four years and beyond. As we saw in the USMNT’s recent friendly against Portugal, there are some solid young pieces working their way up through the pipeline, including Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, which is a promising stepping stone for the Americans, who already have one of the world’s best young players in Christian Pulisic.

Heading into Brazil in 2014, I was cautiously optimistic about how the U.S. would perform given the sides they were paired with in group play and the talent within the squad. Considering how the USMNT showed in 2010, I thought there was a chance they could build off of their Round of 16 appearance and possibly progress a step further, however, Belgium had a big say in preventing that from happening.

Looking at the four pots of teams, pick out your ULTIMATE “Group of Death” scenario

JPW: There are quite a few here. I’m going with: Germany, Spain, Egypt, Australia. But the following four teams would also be an absolute blockbuster of a group: France, England, Costa Rica, Nigeria. Simply put, the World Cup is stacked, as it should be.

NM: Brazil, Spain, Senegal, Serbia.

KB: Any “Group of Death” starts and ends with Spain being in Pot 2. England too probably counts, but Spain’s presence there spells doom for any Pot 3 and 4 team who finds itself in that bunch. Only 2 European countries can be drawn into the same group, which mitigates things a bit, but here are a few options:

Germany, Spain, Costa Rica, Nigeria
Argentina, Spain, Iceland, Japan
Brazil, Spain, Sweden, Australia

DK: Germany, Spain, Denmark, and Nigeria. All four of those teams are strong and Nigeria could be a dark horse in the knockout round with the likes of Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho launching themselves on the world stage. Germany and Spain are juggernauts as always and we saw what Denmark and Christian Eriksen did to the Republic of Ireland.

MR: Brazil, Spain, Denmark, Nigeria

Which team will you want to avoid in Pot 4?

JPW: Serbia. Nobody has taken them too seriously but they have talented players 1-11, many of whom play at big clubs in Europe. Underestimate Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic and Branislav Ivanovic at your peril.

NM: Serbia. I’ve been so impressed with them, with Matic, Tadic, Kolarov, Milivojevic, Nastasic, Llajic, Ivanovic, and Mitrovic. I believe they can sit in and defend when needed, but also can spring some incredible attacks if they get the final ball from Tadic, Mitrovic or someone else.

KB: Pot 4 is relatively weak this time around, but Japan is quite skilled, Nigeria is always. A threat, and Australia plays with a fire that can cause problems.

DK: I’ll keep it with Nigeria. They were underwhelming at the last World Cup but still made it into the Round of 16, and with a new crop of youngsters, they could be a tough out in Russia.

MR: A number of Premier League talents up front and an experienced midfield give Nigeria an edge over the rest of the Pot 4 nations. The Super Eagles have qualified for six of the last seven World Cups, and advanced to the Round of 16 in three of those appearances. I believe John Obi Mikel and Co. will surprise a few people, although they certainly put themselves on the map in 2014. For those unfamiliar with the side, go back and watch their match against Germany in the knockout round.

What would be the easiest group scenario for hosts Russia?

JPW: Mexico, Iran, Panama would be the easiest group for the hosts. It always helps a tournament if the hosts do well but with Russia the lowest-ranked team (65th) in the competition, they’ll do extremely well to get out of any group.

NM: Russia would love to see Peru, Iran or Costa Rica, and Saudi Arabia. Playing a host city is always tricky, but the politics and patriotism of this tournament make it especially difficult. I think Russia escapes its group at a minimum.

KB: Russia is going to seriously struggle no matter who they draw, but the easiest path to the knockout would likely be something like: Russia, Croatia, Iran, Panama

DK: Well, if Russia hosts England they’ll be just fine…..kidding! Peru somehow is seeded in pot two but they clearly aren’t of the quality to be there, it’s just thanks to the FIFA rankings. Same for Poland/Portugal in Pot 1.

MR: Peru, Senegal, Saudi Arabia.

If you had to pick now (and you do), who contests the World Cup final and who wins it?

JPW: Germany and Brazil. And Brazil wins 2-1. This is a better defensive Brazilian side with revenge on their mind and Neymar is ready to lead the Selecao to glory.

NM: I’m torn between who wins it, but it’ll be Germany and Brazil assuming their paths don’t cross on the bracket en route to the final. Germany is the deepest team and reigning champions with enough returning players to build off that record. Brazil is the best team in the world right now and navigated the toughest qualifying route in the world with style.

KB: Until I am proven wrong, I am sticking with Germany as the best team in the world. Brazil has come a long way since Germany embarrassed them on their home turf, and I would love a Germany vs Brazil rematch, this time in the final.

DK: It’s so hard to tell who will be tired and who will still have gas left in the tank, but I’ll say Brazil vs. France. Brazil under Tite is playing the best soccer in the world and historically they are very serious about their physical preparation and making sure all their players were fit. No one pulled out of Brazil’s last squad for the November friendlies and even the players carrying injuries were treated by the Brazilian staff. I like France because of their talented young players that I think learned good lessons in qualifying and Euro 2016 and could take that into a final run next summer.

MR: Germany takes on France. Les Bleus win in extra time.

There’s always a “dark horse” at every tournament. So, who will surprise everyone at Russia 2018?

JPW: As an Englishman I’m tempted to go with England who are definitely being overlooked, but having low expectations hasn’t worked out well in the last few major tournaments. I do think they could get to the quarterfinals, which would be a very acceptable tournament. As for other dark horses, Serbia, as mentioned previously, plus Egypt and Nigeria could all impress, plus Sadio Mane‘s Senegal have shown their penchant for upsets in the past. So, England, Serbia, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal are the five teams to look out for.

NM: I detailed my belief in Serbia above, but I’ll proffer a second opinion: This tournament in particular seems to be highlighting European and South American teams, and I think an African team has a chance to really do some damage with a Liverpool flavor. Senegal (Sadio Mane) and Egypt (Mohamed Salah) both could do something special. Additional love for Japan and South Korea, and I’m especially excited to see Heung-Min Son on display without Harry Kane and Dele Alli righteously demanding the spotlight.

KB: Dark horse has to be England. That is a much improved team with so many bright young stars, and while everyone makes jokes about how England always flops in big tournaments, they’ll sneak up on everyone. Raheem Sterling is coming up big for Man City of late, and he’ll do so for his country in the World Cup too.

DK: Engla-Nah…they’ll underwhelm like always. Sorry Joe, haha. My dark horse comes from Pot 2. Croatia has one of the world’s best midfields with Real Madrid pair Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic as well as Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic. Mario Mandzukic is one of the world’s best No. 9s and the team’s defending is hard as nails. I think they have the quality to make a deep run, especially with it likely being Modric and Mandzukic’s last World Cup.

MR: Take one look at Croatia’s midfield and tell me that’s not one of the best, if not the best, in the tournament. I’m not overly confident about the team’s front group of Mario Mandzukic and Nikola Kalinic, but this team is loaded with talent throughout the squad. Also, the Blazers consistently have best kit in international soccer, so there’s that.

Bolt to train with Borussia Dortmund on Friday

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DORTMUND, Germany (AP) Sprint star Usain Bolt is set to train with German soccer team Borussia Dortmund on Friday.

The Bundesliga club says the eight-time Olympic champion, whose last race before retirement was at the 2017 world championships, will “participate in an open training session” with coach Peter Stoeger’s side.

Bolt posted a picture of himself in a Dortmund shirt on Twitter, saying, “BVB, get ready for Friday.”

Dortmund, which shares a sponsor with Bolt in sportswear giant Puma, had long said that the 31-year-old could train with the team at some stage.

Dortmund’s next game after the international break is at Bayern Munich on March 31. Bayern can secure the league title then if other results go its way.

Can says he wants to play for “very big club” next year

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Liverpool swing man Emre Can – whose contract expires this summer – has not yet found a club to sign with yet, and the future free agent is playing up his own talents while looking for a new home.

“I have the self-confidence to say that my qualities are sufficient to play in a very big club next season,” Can told German newspaper Suddeutche Zeitung. “I’m doing great in England. The Spanish league is also attractive. The same applies to Germany, where tactics are concerned, and the Italian club football, which has recently caught up.”

“Incidentally, the same applies to France, this league has now established itself as one of the best in Europe. Therefore, I do not want to exclude anything.”

However, Can also said that the Premier League’s spending power plays a major role, and singled out the German top flight – his home country – for its inability to pay top players.

“Sure, the Bundesliga would interest me, why not? Although I must say honestly that the level has waned in recent years,” he said. “The Premier League has the power to spend more money on players than the Bundesliga. This is very, very important for players.”

Despite those comments, the 24-year-old insists that money is not the ultimate deciding factor in where he will play.

“What counts for me is that I’m an integral part of the team and at a club with a chance of winning the title,” he added. “That’s what every footballer dreams of because that’s the reward of your hard work.”

Can has not ruled out a return to Liverpool, a club that he says “still feels like family.”

Wales boss Giggs claims he wont give in to commercial pressure to play Bale

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Wales is among the field of the China Cup, an international tournament in Guangxi, China, to play a pair of international friendlies this week.

New manager Ryan Giggs admitted there is outside pressure to play Gareth Bale in the event at some point, but admitted he will not put the Real Madrid star at risk just to appease sponsors. In fact, the only pressure he’s feeling is from himself.

“Any risks, stupid risks, I won’t be taking,” Giggs said. “But it’s also my first game and I want to get my best team out there.”

Wales missed out on the 2018 World Cup, and there’s little to gain from having Bale out on the field the entire time. Wales will play China in the semifinals on Thursday, and then meets the winner of Uruguay and Czech Republic next week.

According to reports, Wales would lose nearly $150,000 of its $1.5 million participation fee if Bale did not play.

“I’ve not spoken to [Real Madrid manager Zinedine] Zidane, but I’ve spoken to Gareth,” Giggs said. “I’ve been in contact with him regularly in the last few months and I’m not stupid because it’s an important part of the season.”

Bale has been smothered by injuries – mostly calf problems – during his Real Madrid career, missing a stretch of over two months through October and November with hamstring issues. He has been fit since, but Zidane rarely risks Bale for the full 90 minutes. In fact, Bale’s only three full 90’s of the 2018 calendar year have all come in the last three weeks.

The 28-year-old has three goals in his last five La Liga games, including one off the bench in a 6-3 win over Girona last weekend.

International preview: What is to come over the next week

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With the 2018 World Cup less than three months away, countries are taking these last moments to see players within their selection pool and make tweaks to the squad and tactics.

This week’s international window has already kicked off with the likes of South Africa, Liechtenstein, and Andorra taking the opportunity to see the field, and World Cup countries take the field tomorrow – two, to be exact. And they play each other.

Denmark and Panama meet in a rare friendly between countries set to take part in the summer festivities, with the match taking place in Bronby at 3pm ET. The two countries chose to play knowing they cannot possibly meet in Russia 2018 until at least the quarterfinals, with their respective Groups C and G split apart across the knockout rounds.

The hosts are fantastic from set-pieces and focus their attack around Tottenham star Christian Eriksen. Panama’s midfield rock Gabriel Gomez will likely be tasked with keeping Eriksen quiet, something the Republic of Ireland was unable to do last time Denmark took the field as Eriksen bagged a hat-trick. Defender Andreas Christensen is headed towards the World Cup in fantastic form with Chelsea, having earned a starting spot with the Blues. With some injuries at the back, Christensen has also played out wide along the back line before as well, something to keep watch for.

On Friday, the heavyweights begin to see the field as Uruguay hosts Czech Republic. The South American nation received a friendly draw in World Cup Group A, but brought in a solid European side to match wits with after the Czechs finished third in their qualifying group. Japan also takes to the pitch on Friday, playing Mali on a neutral field in Belgium. The Japanese will need to be at the top of their game come summer, matched into Group H against Colombia, Poland, and Senegal.

England and Argentina have both scheduled games against European sides that disappointed by failing to make the 2018 tournament. On Friday, England travels to Amsterdam to take on a Netherlands squad in turmoil, while Argentina travels to the Etihad to meet Italy.

Russia and Brazil meet in Moscow on Friday, with over 50,000 tickets already reportedly sold for the match at Luzhniki Stadium. The hosts will then get another stiff test as they take on France four days later on Tuesday. If Russia’s squad has lots of work to do before hosting the World Cup, we’ll know in a week.

The main event on Friday will be Germany and Spain meeting in Dusseldorf in a matchup of the last two World Cup winners. Germany will be without Manuel Neuer and Marco Reus, but still fields one of the deepest squads in the entire world. The Germans don’t then get the week off, having to meet Brazil on Tuesday. If Jogi Low’s side comes out of those matches on top, they could cement their status as favorites headed into the summer.

France has a stiff test as well, meeting Colombia on Friday. Like Denmark and Panama, the two countries reside in Groups C and H, meaning they could not rematch in the World Cup until at least the quarterfinals. The French then go to take on Russia next week.


Denmark vs. Panama
Slovakia vs. UAE
China vs. Wales
Algeria vs. Tanzania
Malta vs. Luxembourg

Germany vs. Spain
Italy vs. Argentina
Russia vs. Brazil
Netherlands vs. England
France vs. Colombia
Portugal vs. Egypt
Uruguay vs. Czech Republic
Mexico vs. Ireland
Poland vs. Nigeria
Austria vs. Slovenia
Peru vs. Croatia
Austria vs. Slovenia
Greece vs. Switzerland
Norway vs. Australia
Mali vs. Japan

Sweden vs. Chile

Kuwait vs. Cameroon
Nicaragua vs. Cuba

Portugal vs. Netherlands
Bulgaria vs. Kazakhstan

Russia vs. France
Germany vs. Brazil
England vs. Italy
Spain vs. Argentina
United States vs. Paraguay
Tunisia vs. Costa Rica
Colombia vs. Australia
Belgium vs. Saudi Arabia
Egypt vs. Greece
Denmark vs. Chile
Japan vs. Ukraine